Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Review: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Age Group: YA
Genre: Contemporary
Pub Date: Jan 2015
Publisher: Penguin

All The Bright Places may be a book about depression, but it is anything but depressing. It deals with a lot of the stigma attached with mental illness, about the loss of loved ones, and finding hope in unexpected places.

We follow Finch, a troublemaker high-schooler who’s constantly in and out of the councillors office and school, and Violet, ex-cheerleader, ex-flute-player, ex-student-council-member. Violet is ex-perfect-student since the death of her sister nine months ago. They meet on top of a bell tower, when Violet is contemplating to kill herself. The story then follows them on a road trip to experience as many places their state has to offer.

The book isn’t by any means perfect. If you are irritated by quirky-character-syndrome, see Augustus Waters in TFioS, this may not be the book for you. Theodore Finch is obsessed by dying right from the start, telling us all about the different ways to go. He has a dramatic way of speaking, and changes his personality weekly. But he’s likeable. And so is Violet.

If you like the two comparisons that All The Bright Places was linked too: Eleanor and Park and TFioS, you will probably like this too. There’s a lot of comparisons between this and TFioS, which are fair in some respects and not in others. Yes, it has a similar style, yes it deals with usually taboo topics in YA, but they are still important topics to deal with. Niven occasionally handles the aspects of mental illness blunderingly, but from the authors note at the end, you can tell the experiences she writes about comes from truth.

All The Bright Places reminds us that between the episodes of sadness, there are pieces of hope. The book gets a bit troupe-y in places: see parent’s banning daughter, insta-love, slight case of manic-pixie-dream-girl/boy. However it throws in some brilliant ideas, the road trip is an excellent example. Violet and Finch try to pick up the pieces of themselves together, and in doing so you are reminded of the Bright Places that can exist in life.

There’s been a lot of criticism over the cotton-candy-style of writing, so I wanted to add my cents-worth. I personally liked Niven’s writing, I thought it was easy to read and differentiable between the two points of view. Niven was bold to touch a topic that hadn’t been handled much before in YA, so there is a need to make it accessible to people. Hopefully All The Bright Places will pave the way for bigger and better YA works on mental health and other stigmatised issues.

I know this sounds like a mixed review, and in all honesty I did like All The Bright Places. But maybe that’s because I’m a sucker for a quirky character and emotionally manipulating stories.


Rating: 7/10

I received a copy of this book from Penguin when I interned for them last year

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Age Group: Adult
Genre: Who knows
Pub Date: 1950
Publisher: Vintage

“All this happened, more or less.” The first line of Slaughterhouse-Five is a warning of how Vonnegut will blur the lines between fiction and reality throughout the book.

The narration of Slaughterhouse-Five is a peculiar one. This is a fine example of meta-fiction, the first chapter follows the author (who we can presume to be Vonnegut, but could be as fictional as the Tralfamadorians who turn up later in the book) and then of his book, The Children’s Crusade, which is about a World War II soldier, Billy Pigram, and his time-travels through past, present, and future. Oh yeah, and there are aliens. And the author keeps turning up in the novel that he has written.

It’s all a bit confusing at first.

It feels like Vonnegut is trying to make a statement. And that statement is to abandon everything you think you know. The reason Slaughterhouse-Five was so initially confusing was because I kept trying to label it in my head. “Okay,” I thought, “This is a meta-fictional, black comedy, war story”. And then time-travel appeared. And then the Tralfamadorians turned up.

Once you give up on trying to understand the story, you can focus more on what the story is trying to say. And it says a lot of important things.

At the heart of it, Slaughterhouse-Five is a war story, and although there are a lot of comedic elements to it, the recurring reminder of death (so it goes) is through it. The awful events of Dresden seriously affects Billy Pilgrim, so much that it distorts his reality through post-traumatic stress. Vonnegut paints it clear that he does not condone war at all, and that although this is a work of fiction, the self-referencing in the times of war shows that he knows what he’s talking about.

Then there’s the concept of time. And the helplessness you have against it. Billy Pilgrim is zapped around time without having any control over it, but there’s some hope within it. As time is presented as non-linear, yet set completely in stone, the Tralfamadorians remind us although we can chose to dwell on the bad times presented at us, we should also remember the good. Or Vonnegut could be saying that this is just an excuse for ignoring the horrors in front of us.

Different people will take different things from Slaughterhouse-Five, just as people have different opinions on Billy Pilgrim. Was he deluded? Suffering from post-traumatic stress? Or did he really see aliens? With the blurred lines between fiction, genres, and reality, we will never know, but Vonnegut gives us plenty to think about.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Asking the Big Questions

Can society ever be fixed? That’s the central question in the two TV shows I’m watching: Humans on Channel 4 and Psycho-Pass on Netflix. In terms of format, neither of these shows have anything in common, Humans is a British drama set  in the not-so-distant future, while Psycho-Pass is a Japanese anime set in a dystopian future.


Humans takes place in a world very much like ours, but with one small addition: there exists a type of Artificial Intelligence called Synths. They look human, they act human; and they do your washing, your shopping, and look after your kids. But it’s ok, because they can’t feel. Psycho-Pass is about a future world where the overarching Sibyl System is in control, where everyone has a Psycho-Pass, which measures everyone’s mental health, and gives them a “Criminal Coefficient”, if you’re above a certain value you are a “latent criminal”, that is you have the potential to commit a crime and you’re a risk to society. It’s then the law enforcement job to neutralise latent criminals before they commit a crime for the protection of society.

But what happens when you get a Synth that can feel? And what happens when you look too closely at a “perfect system”? Both shows examine how our society works, how we interact with other people, and can society ever “be fixed”?

If we introduce Artificial Intelligence that can do everything for us, does it give us more time to be useful, or does it take away our uses? In Humans Synths initially seem like a good idea, they’re basically like servants without the pay and human flaw. But we soon uncover the unsettling effect of their presence. Causing rifts in marriages, people bonding with them like parents and child. And as we follow the journey of a set of Synths who can feel, everything takes a new spin. As Niska, a feeling Synth, yells to a Synth brothel owner “Everything your men do to me, they want to do to you”.  Clearly Synths haven’t fixed society, they’ve just alleviated some of the damaging symptoms. Do the blurred lines between what is human and what we perceive as human matter?

In Psycho-Pass, the idea is that society is already fixed. The Sibyl system is optimising everyone’s happiness; it tells you what’s the best job for you, how to keep your mental health stable, but most importantly it identifies who’s the risk to this perfect society. Is it right to enforce controls upon people who are a threat to society even if they haven’t committed a crime? Is that more important than justice? A quandary that is presented in the first episode is around victims, who get emotionally traumatised from attacked, so much that their Psycho-Pass identifies them as a risk. Can we use logical machines to evaluate humanity?


I realised I’ve just asked a lot of questions in this, which I guess is why I enjoy these shows so much. I doubt we’re going to get artificial intelligence to the point in either of these shows, but it’s always good to ask “What If?”.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Miss Saigon (play)

When the two main characters have fallen in love in the first 15 minutes of a musical, you know it’s only going to go emotionally downhill from there.  

I went into Miss Saigon knowing two things: it was about an American soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese girl during the Vietnam war, and that it had an original run on the West End 25 years ago. After the show I found out another fact that explained a lot; Schönberg and Boublil created it, the same two men who gave us the barrel-of-laughs musical that is Les Misérables.

Quick warning, this is not a musical you want to see with your parents. Unless you are comfortable watching with your parents women in their underwear dance in a brothel, which you may be.

As with Les Mis, Miss Saigon is sung-through, unrelenting in giving us teary power ballads and dance numbers. But unlike Les Mis; hell, unlike most good musicals, Miss Saigon lacked any standout tracks, which is odd for a musical where the music doesn’t stop. There was nothing that I was humming for days after.

But what it lacked in musical panache, it made up with excellent story telling. Miss Saigon took you on a journey with Kim, the young Vietnamese prostitute, and her doomed love with Chris, the American GI. Eva Noblezada played Kim, giving an astonishingly moving performance from someone who has never had a professional theatre role before. Another stand-out performance was Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, who’s mix of sleaze and humour never stopped to entertain.

The staging took you into the depths of Saigon, from the seedy Dreamland Club, to the infamous helicopter scene outside the American Embassy, intersected with trips to America and Thailand. It was the little touches that really impacted the underlying serious tone of the musical. The point where Saigon transitioned to Ho Chi Minh was marked with a militaristic dance in front of a giant golden face of Ho Chi Minh, only to be replaced later in the play with a gaping face of the Statue of Liberty while the Engineer dances in front of it singing about the American Dream. We are left wondering if the Engineer is left yearning for an ideal of a place that is a reflection of the one he left behind.

Miss Saigon is full of morally questionable characters. We are tricked into liking those who have committed crimes, disliking those who have done nothing wrong. In the world of war, Miss Saigon never fails to remind us there are no victors.


Rating: 8/10

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Review: The Leaders' Debate

It wasn’t David Cameron’s visit to the Queen a couple of days ago that signified the beginning of the campaigning period, it was tonight. And did we get some interesting outcomes.

The SNP shot out off nowhere like an AID’s-scapegoating comment out of Nigel Farage’s mouth (yeah, that happened). Nicola Sturgeon was a breath of fresh air backing up her opinions on everything from immigration to education. The issue of the debate was that despite the range of policies on offer, most people (*cough* Nigel Farage especially *cough*) failed to consistently give sound reasoning on why their policies would 1) be best, and 2) be implemented.

Which is why Green’s Aussie Natalie Bennett fell down. As much as she’s the liberals' sweetheart, giving us a lot of ideas (most of which are pretty nice and true), the Green’s have yet to prove how any of their policies would, well… work. It follows Bennett’s previous disaster on LBC, and although she pulled herself back, the lack of clarity of where the Green’s would get the money from, bar taxing the rich, means they have a long way to go.

Speaking of the rich, let’s look at their poster boy, and current PM, David Cameron. Probably the best speaker in the room, Cameron exudes the authority that he should be in charge, unlike his slightly hapless-looking counterpart, Ed Milliband. Cameron stuck to his guns, no doubt pleasing the Tory supporters, and his echoing words of that Britain needs a stronger economy played through the debate.  Milliband did well, but shockingly neither the PM or Leader of the Opposition gave us anything as interesting as the anti-establishment parties, or enough to out-perform the other, meaning the polls are going to be as tight as ever.

Oh yeah, Nick Clegg. Sadly slightly forgettable, but I don’t know if I’m biased as a 21-year-old-student paying three times the amount of debt of someone a year older than her. Okay, bias aside, Clegg wasn’t bad. But he needed to be better than okay. The problem is, Clegg is never going to rip himself away from the fact that he’s been supporting a right-wing government, so any attempts to move back to the liberal centre-left where the party belongs is not going to sit well with voters. Not good enough, deputy PM. Sadly, I'm going to group Wood in here too, although she did make a good impression on Twitter, and hopefully on Wales, Plaid Cymru was useful to highlight the plight of Wales, but failed to live up to her Scottish counterpart.


As for Farage, I’m not going to give him any more airtime than he deserves.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Defying Expectations: Science Biopics

Recently our appetite for science-fiction has been insatiable. From the Marvel franchise to Interstellar, we love to watch people push the boundaries of science. But what about the real-life scientists superheroes, without which the modern world would be very different? Science has always been the unglamorous sibling of humanities in culture, with many filmmakers being first to the post with biopics of their heroes; recent ones on the Beat Generation (Kill Your Darlings) and Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock), but now it’s the scientists turn to step into the limelight, with both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything sweeping up handfuls of awards.

It’s no secret that I’m a scientist, both particle physics and mathematics are topics I study, so I was excited to see scientists make it to the big screen. The Imitation Game follows Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) codebreaking discoveries to eventually founding the beginnings of computer science, whilst The Theory of Everything follows Steven Hawking’s struggles with his disability, and the pressure of it and his work upon his marriage.

There’s an ill-informed idea that science is inaccessible for the majority of people, which is why it’s probably taken so long to produce a film on scientists. But both of these films deal with extraordinary minds and overcoming incredible adversity, and people will buy into a good story no matter what the content. Despite it being about scientists, there’s very little science, both of these films are ultimately about the humanity and challenges that faced two men, who revolutionised the world we live in.
Both men are mind-boggling. As The Imitation Game progresses, you get more of an insight into how challenging it was to break the Enigma Code, and the hard work and genius needed to do it, fathering the computer, only for to see Turing, a war hero, life destroyed by the horrific penalties for being gay. As for Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), a man who was given two years to live; continued with his life, marriage, and work, and year after year kept defying everyone’s expectations, whilst changing the way we understand time and space.


Maybe the audience is becoming more comfortable with science. Now with children learning to code based upon the work of Turing, and Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time and Space is one of the biggest bestsellers, science has become more accessible. And let’s not forget the endless fascination with science-fiction. People are starting to question more, wanting to understand more about the world and future discoveries that may impact their lives. And if that’s not science, I don’t know what is.

There’s a criticism that we raise actors and musicians to unnecessary heights, in a way we don’t for extraordinary people like, say brain surgeons. Whilst I don’t think the social construct is going to change anytime soon, I’m glad that we’re drawing some attention to the  real life superheroes who have led lives which without we would be living very differently.

Now maybe they could do a film on a woman, ey? Marie Curie or Ava Lovelace coming soon?

Monday, 25 August 2014

Pop Confessional: A Brief History of My Music Taste

I like pop music. There I’ve said it. Call the hipster-army-brigade and get them to arrest me. I admit to surfing the mainstream.

And this is something that has taken me a while to come to terms with. The reason it took me so long to come to terms with it, is because I was acting far more pretentiously than I had any right to be.

There’s nothing wrong with liking or disliking anything. Everyone is entitled to have their own opinions. Something I’ve ranted about previously is when people start to enforce their opinions onto someone else to make them feel lesser. In the video it’s about preferring YA to classic fiction, in this it’s about preferring mainstream pop to whatever’s “cooler”.

I’m not saying pop music has more artistic merit, or is cleverer, or is better than any other type of music. I’m saying I get a personal pleasure from it, which shouldn’t be taken away from me by someone saying what I feel is “stupid”.

I say this as a person who previously scorned pop, choosing to plug in my headphones instead of giving it a chance.

My story starts in the 90’s and early 00’s, the decade of my birth, and the years of Backstreet Boys, S Club 7, and Britney Spears. At a child who’s age was yet to enter double-digits, I had no problem with my jam being “Reach For the Stars”. I grew up on cotton-candy pop and loved it.

The dark ages appeared in the form of my teenage years. I thought I was getting more angsty and grungier in music taste, but only in my head. For my thirteenth birthday I got a mini stereo-system and my love with music was sealed. As I went through my teen years, my music taste rapidly changed from bubblegum pop, to more pop-rock, to just rock. A good indicator is the first albums I got with my stereo system: Avril Lavigne, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Razorlight, and Green Day. (I know, it's a strange selection).

I went hardcore with my music taste. I wanted to like “good” music. Except I had no idea what good music was. Since everyone I knew was listening to rock, I assumed that was it. I bought Linkin Park, Blink 182, and Sum 41. I felt proud of myself. This was what is good, right?

In 2009 I heard a musician who was initially was a guilty pleasure, and then became a proud love of mine. Taylor Swift released “Love Story”. There was something sincere in what she sang, something catchy, and a country-twang that brought me to my childhood when my parents blasted out Shania Twain (if anyone taught me not to care about my music taste, it was them).

I was ashamed. But I couldn’t work out why. Taylor Swift wrote all her songs, like the rest of the artists I listened too. Her songs had a story and meaningful lyrics, which I could relate too. I found her music fun to listen to. And then I realised that I had no reason to be ashamed, I was allowed to like whatever I wanted to, other people’s opinions be damned.

And then I had a country music phase, but we won’t go into that.

My music taste currently is a combination of a lot of things from my musical past. You can find everything from Mumford and Sons, to Katy Perry, to 30 Second to Mars on my iPod. And if anyone tells you that you shouldn’t like something, to quote T-Swift, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate… Shake it off”.

P.S. If anyone wants to try something new, here’s The Pierces, an amazing folk-rock band.